The Colonel, the Squat and the National Front
Back in 1970 Pete, my best mate, and I returned to college for our second year. Somehow, despite the hundreds of concerts, the Sci-fi novels that required reading, the friends that had to be entertained, the music that begged to be listened to and other essential business, we had managed to pass the exams (with a retake or two for me). With our usual meticulous planning and panache we turned up on the first day expecting everything to fall into place. It went as could have been predicted. We couldn’t find a room to rent and found ourselves on the streets. After a night in a phone box, which I can assure you does not make for a comfortable sleep, we headed off to the Students Union to seek help. Apparently there were no digs available. They kindly directed us to a squat on Ilford High Street. It was an empty shop. We were instructed to do a secret knock on the door and ask for ‘The Colonel’.
We found the place and performed his intricate knock that made me feel like one of the Goons in that sketch where they had to do a thousand knocks on the door.
We must have got the convoluted pattern right because after a while there was shuffling the other side and a voice, in a strong Scottish brogue, asked suspiciously who it was. We explained who we were, who had sent us and that we were to ask for ‘The Colonel’.
We stood in the road as a great deal of clanking and shifting took place the other side of the door. It opened a slot and a rheumy eye looked us up and down. Seemingly content, despite the long hair and brightly coloured clothes, he ascertained we were no threat, we weren’t the fascist National Front; we were students. The door then opened to reveal a middle-age man with grey hair, a clipped moustache and big eyebrows. He was wearing a kilt. He ushered us in quickly and we passed through the door into a dim stairwell. The cause of the clanking was immediately obvious. Above the door was suspended a huge body of metallic junk with everything from bike frames to parts of prams. It must have weighed a ton. Anyone forcing their way in would have had the whole lot descending on their head. The Colonel was prepared for bother. He wasn’t a Colonel for nothing. There was strategic planning evident.
Welcome to the squat.
The squat was the Colonel’s home but he kindly operated as a temporary residence for the dispossessed. There were quite a lot of them around in the East End of London at that time. Rachman, the gangster landlord, was still in operation, frightening people out of their homes and taking over the places to charge extortionate rents and pack in immigrants. He was making a fortune out of the misery of others.
The squat had a number of rooms. The Colonel had the front room. He was a Colonel from a Highland regiment and received his pension weekly. It was soon apparent as to why he was living in a squat and what he was spending his pension on.
In one of the other rooms there was a young couple with a three month old baby. They looked terrified and tearful. It later transpired that they had been targeted by Peter Rachman. They had been renting a room in a house that the Landlord wanted. They been told to go but as they did not have anywhere to go to, had ignored the warnings. One morning a bunch of goons arrived while the young man was out looking for a job. They had broken in, smashed up all their possessions, including the baby’s cot, and thrown everything out the window into the garden. They’d escorted mother and baby out to the street, threatened them with baseball bats and then proceeded to smash the stairs with a sledge-hammer so nobody could get back up.
No wonder the family were terrified. They’d rescued what they could of baby clothes and possessions and ended up at ‘The Colonel’s’.
Pete and I were shown into a bare room with filthy floorboards. I put my new cream-coloured ankle-length sheepskin coat on the floor as cushioning (I never got it clean again) and unrolled my sleeping bag on top of it. Pete unrolled his on the bare boards. We were home.
We all gathered in the Colonels big room that overlooked Ilford High Street, talked and watched the shoppers from on high. On Friday the Colonel received his pension and proceeded to blow it on scotch whiskey which he drank from an old chipped white enamel mug with a blue rim. The more he consumed the merrier he got and then would serenade us with song. He had an amazing ability to add ‘Ne’ to the end of every word.
One song stands out:
‘Meinne Pretyne Wunderbarne’.
It was quite a feat and we were all struck dumb with admiration, or at least we were struck.
One Saturday morning we were subjected to a protest by the National Front against squatters. I bet Rachman was behind it. A huge threatening mob of Nazi’s appeared in the High Street, chanting, making Hitler salutes, pointing up at us and making threats. Seemingly they weren’t keen on squatters. Between this menacing mob, who were busy working themselves up into a frenzy, and us was a thin line of police. It was getting extremely violent and explosive as the mob grew to a hundred or so and the fury mounted. It began to look as if the handful of police were going to be swamped and we were going to end up as mincemeat. In hindsight this probably wasn’t helped by Pete and I sitting in the window with our feet on the shop front that jutted out below us, waving to, and mocking, the obnoxious fascist skinheads who did not seem at all pacified by a couple of long-haired freaks grinning down at them. Peace and love were not in their repertoire. They were baying for blood.
The furore eventually abated and somehow the police managed to keep them from storming the place.
We were only there for three weeks before finding a room but it was an experience.
The week following our departure the Colonel was arrested for indecent exposure.
One Saturday morning he had been partaking of his Scottish elixir of life and decided it was a good idea to demonstrate his vocal skills to the Saturday morning shoppers. He’d clambered out of the window on to the shop front, mug in hand, and proceeded to serenade the shoppers below with renditions all most likely based around the magic syllable ‘ne’.
The shoppers were not as enthralled as we had been. One of the ‘disgusted’ ladies had reported the event to the police. By standing on the front of the shop the Colonel had clearly revealed to all and sundry exactly what Scotsmen wear under their kilts. At least one of them thought it wasn’t a pretty sight. The inflamed ladies of Ilford achieved what the National Front could not and the squat was shut down.